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FOR  JUXE,  1899 










FOR  JUNE,  189U 



Copyright,  1899, 


BOTH  the  interest  and  the  importance  of  the  subject  make  it 
worth  while  to  follow  out  every  clew  that  may  lead  to  the  ap- 
proximate determination  of  the  age  of  Niagara  Falls.  During  this 
past  season,  in  connection  with  some  work  done  for  the  New  York 
Central  Railroad  upon  their  branch  line  which  runs  along  the  eastern 
face  of  the  gorge  from  Bloody  Run  to  Lewiston,  I  fortunately  came 
into  possession  of  data  from  which  an  estimate  of  the  age  of  the  falls 
can  be  made  entirely  independent  of  those  which  have  heretofore 
been  current.  The  bearing  and  importance  of  the  new  data  can  best 
be  seen  after  a  brief  resume  of  the  efforts  heretofore  made  to  solve 
this  important  problem. 

In  1841  Sir  Charles  Lyell  and  the  late  Prof.  James  Hall  visited 
the  falls  together;  but,  having  no  means  of  determining  the  rate 
of  recession,  except  from  the  indefinite  reports  of  residents  and  guides, 
they  could  place  no  great  confidence  in  the  "  guess,"  made  by  Sir 
Charles  Lyell,  that  it  could  not  be  more  than  one  foot  a  year.  As 
the  length  of  the  gorge  from  Lewiston  up  is  about  seven  miles,  the 
time  required  for  its  erosion  at  this  rate  would  be  thirty-five  thousand 
years.  The  great  authority  and  popularity  of  Lyell  led  the  general 
public  to  put  more  confidence  in  this  estimate  than  the  distinguished 
authors  themselves  did.  Mr.  Bakewell,  another  eminent  English 
geologist,  at  about  the  same  time  estimated  the  rate  of  the  recession 
as  threefold  greater  than  Lyell  and  Hall  had  done,  which  would  re- 
duce the  time  to  about  eleven  thousand  years. 

But,  to  prepare  the  way  for  a  more  definite  settlement  of  the 
question,  the  New  Yoyk.  Geological  Survey,  under  Professor  Hall's 
direction,  had  a  careful  trigonometric  survey  of  the  Horseshoe  Fall 
made  in  1842,  erecting  monuments  at  the  points  at  which  their  angles 
were  taken,  so  that,  after  a  sufficient  lapse  of  time,  the  actual  rate 


of  recession  could  be  more  accurately  determined.  In  18S6  Mr. 
Woodward,  of  the  United  States  Geological  Survey,  made  a  new 
survey,  and  found  that  the  actual  amount  of  recession  in  the  center 

Fig.  1. — Looking  north  I'rom  below  the  Wliirlpool,  showiuir  the  electric  road  at  the  bottom 
of  the  east  side  of  the  gorge,  and  the  steam  road  descending  the  face  about  lialfway  to 
the  top. 

of  the  Horseshoe  Fall  had  proceeded  at  an  average  rate  of  about  five 
feet  per  annum.  The  subject  was  thoroughly  discussed  by  Drs. 
Pohlman  and  Gilbert,  at  the  Buffalo  meeting  of  the  American  Asso- 
ciation in  1886,  when  it  was  proved,  to  the  satisfaction  of  every  one, 
that,  if  the  supply  of  water  had  been  constant  throughout  its  history^ 
the  whole  work  of  eroding  the  gorge  from  Lewiston  to  the  Falls 
would  have  been  accomplished,  at  the  present  rate  of  recession,  in 
about  seven  thousand  years. 

But  the  question  was  immediately  raised,  Has  the  supply  of  water 
in  Niagara  River  been  constant?  It  was  my  privilege,  in  the  autumn 
of  1892  (see  Bulletin  of  the  Geological  Society  of  America,  vol.  iv, 
pp.  421-427),  to  bring  forth  the  first  positive  evidence  that  the  water 
pouring  over  l^iagara  had  for  a  time  been  diverted,  having  been 
turned  through  Lake  Nipissing  down  the  valley  of  the  Mattawa  into 
the  Ottawa  River,  following  nearly  the  line  of  Champ] ain's  old  trail 
and  of  the  present  Canadian  Pacific  Railroad.  The  correctness  of 
this  inference  has  been  abundantly  confirmed  by  subsequent  inves- 

ESTIMATING'    THE   JC/A'    OF   SlAdMiA    FALLS.  3 

tigations  of  Mr.  V.  W.  'YnyVn-  ami  Dr.  lioliert  licll.'  'I'lio  occasion 
of  this  diversion  of  the  drainage  of  the  Great  Lakes  from  the  Niagara 
through  the  Ottawa  Valley  was  the  well-known  northerly  snhsidence 
of  the  land  in  Canada  at  the  close  of  the  Glacial  period.  When  the 
ice  melted  off  from  the  lower  part  of  the  Ottawa  Valley  the  land 
stood  five  hundred  feet  lower  than  it  does  now,  but  the  extent  of  this 
subsidence  diminished  both  to  the  south  and  the  west,  making  it 
difficult  to  estimate  just  how  great  it  was  at  the  Nipissing  outlet.  A 
subsidence  of  one  hundred  feet  at  that  point,  however,  would  now 
divert  the  waters  into  the  Ottawa  River.  That  it  actually  was  so 
diverted  is  shown  both  by  converging  high-level  shore  lines  at  the 
head  of  the  Mattawa  Valley  and  by  the  immense  delta  deposits  at 
its  junction  with  the  Ottawa,  to  which  attention  was  first  called  in 
my  paper  referred  to  above. 

Fi(,.  -1. 

-\  icw  looking  east  across  the  gortre  near  the  mouth,  showing  the  raih'oads  and  the 
outcrops  of  Clinton  and  Is'iagara  limestones  above  the  steam  road. 

The  indeterminate  question  which  remained  was,  At  what  rate 
did  this  postglacial  elevation  of  land  which  has  brought  it  up  to 
its  present  level  proceed?  Dr.  Gilbert,  Professor  Spencer,  and  Mr. 
Taylor  have  brought  forth  a  variety  of  facts  which,  according  to 

*  See  article  by  Mr.  Taylor  on  The  Scoured  Bowlders  of  the  Mattawa  Valley,  in  the 
American  Journal  of  Science,  March,  1897,  pp.  208-218. 


their  interpretation,  show  that  this  rate  of  elevation  was  so  slow  that 
from  twenty  thousand  to  thirty  thousand  years  was  required  to  restore 
to  the  Niagara  River  its  present  volume  of  water.  Their  arguments 
are  based  upon  the  varying  width  and  depth  of  the  Niagara  gorge, 
proving,  as  they  think,  the  presence  of  a  smaller  amount  of  water 
during  the  erosion  of  some  portions.  Dr.  Gilbert  has  also  brought 
forward  some  facts  concerning  the  extent  of  supposed  erosion  pro- 
duced by  the  diverted  waters  of  Niagara  when  passing  over  an 
intermediate  outlet  between  Lake  Simcoe  and  Lake  Nipissing.  But 
the  difficulty  of  obtaining  any  safe  basis  for  calculation  upon  these 
speculative  considerations  has  increased  the  desire  to  find  a  means  of 
calculation  which  should  be  independent  of  the  indeterminate  prob- 
lems involved.  That  I  think  I  have  found,  and  so  have  made  a 
beginning  in  obtaining  desired  results.  The  neiv  evidence  lies  in 
the  extent  of  the  enlargement  of  the  mouth  of  the  Niagara  gorge  at 
Lewiston  since  the  recession  of  the  falls  began. 

It  is  evident  that  the  oldest  part  of  the  Niagara  gorge  is  at  its 
mouth,  at  Lewiston,  where  the  escarpment  suddenly  breaks  down  to 
the  level  of  Lake  Ontario.  The  walls  of  the  gorge  rise  here  to  a 
height  of  three  hundred  and  forty  feet  above  the  level  of  the  river. 
It  is  clear  that  from  the  moment  the  recession  of  the  falls  began  at 
Lewiston  the  walls  of  the  gorge  on  either  side  have  been  subject  to 
the  action  of  constant  disintegrating  agencies,  tending  to  enlarge 
the  mouth  and  make  it  Y-shaped.  What  I  did  last  summer  was  to 
measure  the  exact  amount  of  this  enlargement,  and  to  obtain  an  ap- 
proximate estimate  of  the  rate  at  which  it  is  going  on.*  As  this  en- 
largement proceeds  wholly  through  the  action  of  atmospheric  agen- 
cies, the  conditions  are  constant,  and  it  is  hoped  that  sufficiently 
definite  results  have  been  obtained  to  set  some  limits  to  the  specula- 
tions which  have  been  made  upon  more  indefinite  grounds. 

The  face  on  the  east  side  of  the  gorge  presents  a  series  of  alternate 
layers  of  hard  and  soft  rocks,  of  which  certain  portions  are  very  sus- 
ceptible to  the  disintegrating  agencies  of  the  atmosphere.  The  sum- 
mit consists  of  from  twenty  to  thirty  feet  of  compact  Niagara  lime- 
stone, which  is  underlaid  by  about  seventy  feet  of  Niagara  shale; 
which  in  turn  rests  upon  a  compact  stratmn  of  Clinton  limestone 
about  twenty  feet  thick,  which  again  is  underlaid  by  a  slialy  deposit 
of  seventy  feet,  resting  upon  a  compact  stratum  of  Medina  sandstone 
twenty  feet  thick,  below  which  a  softer  sandstone,  that  crumbles 
somewhat  readily,  extends  to  the  level  of  the  river. 

*  For  opportunity  to  do  this  work  I  am  indebted  to  the  interest  of  President  S.  R. 

Callaway,  of  the  New  York  Central  Railroad.  The  measurements  were  made  by  Mr.  George 

S.  Tibbits,  engineer  of  the  western  division.  The  photographs  were  taken  by  Mr.  C.  F. 
Dutton,  of  Cleveland. 


The  present  width  of  the  river  at  the  month  of  the  gorge  is 
seven  hundred  and  seventy  feet.  It  is  scarcely  possible  that  the 
original  width  of  the  gorge  was  here  any  less  than  this,  for  in  the 
narrowest  places  above,  even  where  the  Kiagara  limestone  is  much 
thicker  than  at  Lewiston,  it  is  nowhere  much  less  than  six  hundred 
feet  in  width.  Xor  is  it  probable  that  the  river  has  to  any  consider- 
able extent  enlarged  its  channel  at  the  mouth  of  the  gorge  at  the 
water  level.  On  the  contrary,  it  is  more  probable  that  the  mouth 
has  been  somewhat  contracted,  for  the  large  masses  of  Xiagara  and 
Clinton  limestone  and  Medina  sandstone  which  have  fallen  down  as 
the  shales  were  undermined  have  accunuilated  at  the  base  as  a  talus, 

Fig.  3. — Loiikiii;r  up  tlie  gorge  from  near  Lewiston,  sliowing  on  the  left  the  exposed  situation 
of  the  eiistern  face  of  the  gorge  at  the  extreme  angle,  -where  the  measurements  were  made. 

which  the  present  current  of  the  river  is  too  feeble  to  remove.  This 
talus  of  great  blocks  of  hard  stone  has  effectually  riprapped  the 
banks,  and  really  encroached  to  some  extent  upon  the  original 

"We  may  therefore  assume  with  confidence  that  the  enlargement, 
under  subaerial  agencies,  of  the  mouth  of  the  gorge  at  the  top  of 
the  escarpment  has  been  no  greater  than  the  distance  from  the  pres- 
ent water's  edge  to  the  present  line  of  the  escarpment  at  the  summit 
of  the  ^N^iagara  limestone.  This  ^ve  found  to  he  three  hundred  and 
eighty-eight  feet — that  is,  the  upper  stratum  of  hard  rock  on  the 
east  side  of  the  gorge  had  retreated  that  distance,  through  the  action 
of  atmospheric  agencies,  since  the  formation  of  the  gorge  first  began. 
The  accompanying  photogravures  and  diagram  w'ill  present  the  facts 


at  a  glance.  The  total  work  of  enlargement  on  the  east  side  of  the 
gorge  has  been  the  removal  of  an  inverted  triangular  section  of  the 
rock  strata  three  hundred  and  forty  feet  high  and  three  hundred  and 
eighty-eight  feet  base,  which  would  be  the  same  as  a  rectangular 
section  of  one  hundred  and  ninety-four  feet  base.  From  this  one 
can  readily  see  that  if  the  average  erosion  has  been  at  the  rate  of 
one  quarter  of  an  inch  per  annum,  the  whole  amount  would  have 
fallen  down  in  less  than  ten  thousand  years;  while  if  the  time  is 
lengthened,  as  some  would  have  it,  to  forty  thousand  years,  the  rate 
would  be  reduced  to  one  sixteenth  of  an  inch  per  year. 

Fortunately,  the  construction  of  the  railroad  along  the  face  of 
the  eastern  wall  of  the  gorge  affords  opportunity  to  study  the  rate 
of  erosion  during  a  definite  period  of  time.  The  accompanying 
photogravures  will  illustrate  to  the  eye  facts  which  it  is  hard  to 
make  impressive  by  words  alone.  The  course  of  the  road  is  diago- 
nally down  the  face  of  the  gorge  from  its  summit  for  a  distance  of 
about  two  miles,  descending  in  that  space  about  two  hundred  feet 
to  the  outcrop  of  hard  quartzose  Medina  sandstone.  The  lower  mile 
of  this  exposure  presents  the  typical  situation  for  making  an  estimate 
of  the  rate  at  which  the  face  is  crumbling  away. 

Beginning  at  what  used  to  be  known  as  the  "  Hermit's  Cave," 
near  the  Catholic  College  grounds,  where  the  Niagara  shale  is  well 
exposed,  and  extending  to  the  outer  limit  of  the  gorge,  the  height 
of  the  face  above  the  railroad  averages  one  hundred  and  fifty  feet. 
ISTow,  the  crumbling  away  of  the  superincumbent  cliffs  gives  contin- 
ual trouble  to  the  road.  Three  watchmen  are  constantly  employed 
along  this  distance  to  remove  the  debris  which  falls  down,  and  to  give 
warning  if  more  comes  down  than  they  can  remove  before  trains  are 
due.  The  seventy  feet  of  ISTiagara  shale,  and  the  equal  thickness  of 
shaly  Medina  rock  which  underlies  the  Clinton  limestone,  are  con- 
stantly falling  off,  even  in  fair  weather,  as  any  one  can  experience  by 
walking  along  the  bank;  while  after  storms,  and  especially  in  the 
spring,  when  the  frost  is  coming  out,  the  disintegration  proceeds  at  a 
much  more  rapid  rate.  Sometimes  two  or  three  days  are  required  by 
the  whole  force  of  section  hands  to  throw  over  the  bank  the  result 
of  a  single  fall  of  material. 

At  a  rate  of  one  quarter  of  an  inch  of  waste  each  year  the  amount 
of  debris  accumulating  for  removal  on  the  track  along  this  distance 
would  be  only  six  hundred  and  ten  cubic  yards  per  annum — that  is, 
if  six  hundred  and  ten  cubic  yards  of  material  falls  down  from  one 
mile  of  the  face  of  the  wall  where  it  is  a  hundred  and  fifty  feet 
high,  the  whole  amount  of  enlargement  of  tlie  mouth  of  the  gorge 
would  be  accomplished  in  less  than  ten  thousand  years.  Exact  ac- 
counts have  not  been  kept  by  the  railroad;  but  even  a  hasty  exami- 

ESTIMATING    THE  Af.'E    OF   X/Ad A/x'.\    FALLS. 

nation  of  the  face  of  the  wall  makes  it  sure  tliiit  the  actual  amount 
removed  lias  been  greatly  in  excess  of  six  hundred  yards  annually. 
This  estimate  is  based  partly  on  the  im]ir<'ssion  of  tlio  railroad  offir-jals 
as  to   the   cost   of  re- 
moval, and  partly  on 
the  impressions  of  the 
watchmen   who  sjDend 
their  time  in  keeping- 
guard  and  in  the  work 
of  removing  it. 

But  that  is  not 
all.  The  accompany- 
ing photogravures  indi- 
cate an  actual  amount 
of  removal  over  a  part 
of  the  area  enormously 
in  excess  of  the  rate 
supposed.  Fig.  5  shows 
a  portion  of  the  preci- 
pice, a  hundred  feet 
high,  where  the  road 
first  comes  down  to  the 
level  of  the  Clinton 
limestone,  and  where, 
consequently,  the 
wholQ  thickness  of  the 
Niagara  shale  is  acces- 
sible to  examination.  Fortunately,  Patrick  Maci^amara,  the  w^atch- 
man  at  this  station,  was  a  workman  on  the  road  at  the  time  of  its 
construction  in  1854,  and  has  been  connected  with  the  road  ever 
since,  having  been  at  his  present  post  for  twelve  years.  "We  have 
therefore  his  distinct  remembrance,  as  well  as  the  appearance  of 
the  bank,  to  inform  us  where  the  face  of  the  original  excavation 
then  was.  In  the  picture  he  is  standing  at  the  original  face,  while 
the  other  figure  is  nearly  at  the  back  of  the  space  which  has  been 
left  empty  by  the  crumbling  away  of  the  shale.  The  horizon- 
tal distance  is  fully  twenty  feet,  and  the  rocks  overhang  to  that 
amount  for  the  whole  distance  exposed  in  the  photogi'aph.  All  this 
amount  of  shale  has  fallen  down  in  forty-four  years,  making  a  rate 
many  times  larger  than  the  highest  we  have  taken  as  the  basis  of  our 
estimate.  Of  course,  this  rate  for  the  crumbling  away  of  the  Niagara 
shale  on  its  fresh  exposure  is  much  in  excess  of  the  average  rate  for 
a  long  period  of  time;  but  it  is  clear  that  the  rate  of  erosion  at  the 
base  of  the  Niagara  limestone  at  the  mouth  of  the  gorge  can  never 

Fig.  4. — Nearer  \"i<.-v,  -f  ilir  npi'.-i-  |M.rti 
the  niou''h,  showinir  the  oxpiisiue 
that  point. 

ii  -t    tl  <     Cm-   II'  ;-r 
It   the  situutiou  at. 


have  been  sufficiently  slow  to  reduce  the  total  average  much  below  the 
assumed  rate  of  a  quarter  of  an  inch  a  year. 

To  impress  the  truth  of  this  statement  it  is  only  necessary  to  fol- 
low the  progress,  in  imagination,  of  the  crumbling  process  which  has 

Fig.  5. — Showing  extent  of  erosion  at  base  of  the  Niagara  shale  since  ISoi. 
(See  description  in  the  text.) 

brought  the  side  of  the  gorge  to  its  present  condition.  At  first  the 
face  of  the  gorge  was  perpendicular,  the  plunging  water  making  the 
gorge  as  wide  at  the  bottom  as  at  the  top.  At  successive  stages  the 
strata  of  shale  on  the  side  would  crumble  away,  as  is  shown  in  our 
photograph,  and  undermine  the  strata  of  hard  rock.  The  large 
fragments  would  fall  to  the  bottom,  and,  being  too  large  to  be  car- 
ried away  by  the  current,  would  form  the  talus  to  which  we  have 
already  referred,  which  would  grow  in  height  with  every  successive 
century.  The  actual  progress  of  the  enlargement  would  thus  be 
periodic,  and  not  capable  of  measurement  by  decades ;  but  after  cen- 
turies the  progress  would  be  clearly  marked,  and  especially  when- 
ever there  was  a  falling  away  of  the  lower  stratum  of  compact  Medina 
sandstone,  which  is  about  two  hundred  feet  below  the  top,  would 
a  new  cycle  of  rapid  disintegrations  in  the  superincumbent  strata 

An  important  point  to  be  noticed,  and  which  is  evident  from  two 
of  the  reproduced  photographs  (Figs.  3  and  4),  is  that  the  talus  has 


never  reached  up  so  high  as  to  check  the  disintegration  at  the  mouth 
of  the  gorge  of  the  Niagara  shale  and  limestone  which  form  the 
upper  one  hundred  feet  of  the  face,  and  which  exhibit  the  maximum 
amount  of  enlargement  which  has  taken  place.  The  thickness  of 
the  Niagara  limestone  is  here  so  small  that  it  has  not  been  so  im- 
portant an  element  in  forming  the  talus  as  it  has  been  farther  up  the 
stream,  where  it  is  two  or  three  times  as  thick.  Now,  while  our 
original  supposition  was  that  one  quarter  of  an  inch  annually  was 
eroded  from  the  upper  two  hundred  feet,  this  would  involve  the 
erosion  of  a  half  inch  per  annum  over  the  top  of  the  gorge  to  bring 
the  calculation  within  the  limit  of  ten  thousand  years.  It  certainly 
is  difficult  for  one  who  examines  the  facts  upon  the  ground  to  believe 
that  the  crumbling  away  of  this  exposed  Niagara  shale  could  have 
been  at  any  less  rate  than  that;  so  that  the  estimate  of  about  ten 
thousand  years  for  the  date  of  that  stage  of  the  Glacial  period  in 
which  Niagara  River  first  began  its  work  of  erosion  at  Lewiston  (an 

Fio.  6.— Section,  drawn  to  equal  vertical  and  horizontal  scale,  showing  enlargement  of  Niagara 
gorge  on  the  east  side  at  its  mouth  at  Lewiston :  1,  Niagara  limestone,  20  to  30  feet ; 
2,  Niagara  shale,  70  feet;  3,  Clinton  limestone,  20  to  30  feet;  4,  Clinton  and  Medina 
shale,  70  feet ;  5,  Quartzose  Medina  sandstone,  20  to  30  feet :  6,  softer  Medina  sandstone, 
120  feet  above  water  level. 

estimate  which  is  supported  by  a  great  variety  of  facts  independent 
of  those  relating  to  the  Niagara  gorge)  is  strongly  confirmed  by 
this  new  line  of  evidence. 

So  far  as  I  can  see,  the  only  question  of  serious  doubt  that  can  be 


raised  respecting  this  calculation  will  arise  from  the  possible  supposi- 
tion that,  when  the  eastern  drainage  over  the  Niagara  channel  be- 
gan, the  land  stood  at  such  a  relatively  lower  level  as  would  reduce 
the  height  of  the  fall  to  about  half  that  of  the  present  escarpment  at 
that  point;  when  it  might  be  supposed  that  a  protecting  talus  had 
accumulated  which  would  interrupt  the  lateral  erosion  for  the  in- 
definite period  when  the  drainage  was  being  drawn  around  by  way 
of  the  recently  opened  Lake  Mpissing  and  Mattawa  outlet.  Then, 
upon  the  resumption  of  the  present  line  of  drainage,  with  the  land 
standing  at  nearly  its  present  level,  the  talus  may  have  been  undercut, 
and  so  fallen  down  to  leave  the  upper  strata  exposed  as  at  present. 
But  there  does  not  seem  to  be  sufficient  warrant  for  such  a  supposition 
to  make  it  necessary  seriously  to  entertain  it,  while  the  objections  to 
it  are  significant  and  serious.  First,  the  present  narrowness  of  the 
river  at  the  water  level  is  such  that  it  does  not  give  much  opportunity 
for  enlargement  after  the  first  formation  of  the  gorge;  secondly, 
the  ISTiagara  limestone  at  the  mouth  of  the  gorge  is  so  thin  (stated  by 
Hall  to  be  twenty  feet  thick)  that  it  would  not  form  a  protecting  talus, 
even  at  half  its  present  height. 

P.  S. — Since  the  above  was  wiitten  there  has  been  reported  in 
the  papers  an  immense  fall  of  rock  from  the  east  side  of  the  gorge, 
near  the  head  of  the  Whirlpool  rapids.  The  estimate  made  of  the 
amount  is  one  hundred  thousand  tons.  If  that  estimate  is  correct, 
it  is  a  very  impressive  illustration  of  how  the  average  fall  of  mate- 
rial from  the  side  of  the  gorge  is  occasionally  increased  by  a  single 
instance.  In  making  our  calculations  above,  the  total  amount  of 
material  annually  falling  off  from  the  portion  of  the  side  of  the  gorge 
under  consideration  amounted  only  to  1,237  tons,  while  the  amount 
of  material  was  611  cubic  yards.  But  the  100,000  tons  which  came 
off  in  a  single  slide  a  few  weeks  ago  would  be  equal  to  twenty  inches 
in  thickness  from  the  whole  face  of  the  cliff,  where  our  estimate  was 
only  a  quarter  of  an  inch. 

N.  B. — In  the  diagram  (Fig.  6)  extend  the  Niagara  shale  (2)  up 
to  occupy  lower  two  layers  of  (1),  thus  making  Niagara  limestone  (1) 
half  as  thick  as  now. 

Applctons'  Pojyular  Science  Monthly. 

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The  great  problems  of  society  are  iiiaking 
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